Plagiarism in a Digital Age

On October 29th, the New York Times published an article by Lionel Anderson and Katherine Schulten entitled Understanding Plagiarism in a Digital Age. If you haven’t read it yet, please, leave this blog post right now and take a moment to do so. I’ll wait.

Close Up of the thinker


This is me waiting patiently, just thinking…


Alright, you’re back. What did you think?

When an English colleague brought the article to my attention, I thought, “EUREKA! A good upper school blog topic! Let’s see how other librarians react to and/or are already handling this!” It is an ongoing conversation in my world and I would imagine it is in yours as well. We want to do it better. Maybe you can help?

Stating the obvious:

We are all dealing with busy, busy teens living in a digital age where one can copy and paste faster than one can actually say the words “copy and paste”. We mash up songs and retweet the ideas that resonate with us. We truly are a part of a sharing culture.  Shmoop and Spark have become verbs describing pre-class reading to prepare for a literary discussion, with or without an accompanying quiz. Can original thought survive such preparation, or are others’ words becoming the “barbs” that Anderson and Schulten refer to in the article?

What if you’re working with a multi-cultural population with different notions of intellectual ownership? If these students plan on attending American universities, isn’t it our responsibility to teach them the American rules of attribution?

I want to know how we can step down from the proverbial soapbox and speak to our upper school students like the young adults that they are. To stop preaching and scare tactics to engage with them in a genuine conversation that will instill the wisdom and the skills to read, to engage with a text, to synthesize, and to attribute. How do we weave this into our school culture, not just for a few minutes when handing out an assignment or during a Noodletools intro during a library visit? We need more.

This isn’t a new question, I know. I’m culling research to share with the committee I’m on and holy wow, there’s a lot out there on it. Information overloadddddd!!!!! I can read all of that, but I want to hear tried and true: what’s working for you and  your school?

Does your school have something like the ‘Plagiarism Learning Lab’ concept mentioned in the article?

Do you lead the conversation or is it another department, like English or history?

Do you work plagiarism discussion into other areas of school life, like advisory conversations, an opening week seminar, or your senior retreat?

What are you doing to address plagiarism in the digital age?

4 thoughts on “Plagiarism in a Digital Age

  1. This is something that I’ve been wrestling with too. While I appreciate the Times article, my growing belief is that it is not effective to teach what amount to scare tactics, some nicer than others. To teach against plagiarism, I believe we have to focus more on the development of voice. I think it’s important too to note that there is not one universal definition of plagiarism used across the board- I always show my upper school students policies from 3 universities and remind them about self-plagiarism. I think too that research benchmarks across disciplines and across grade levels are needed (this is what I’m working on now). I’ve done a lot of two or three days visits to classes, but I think this needs to be bolstered by firm communication and policy in a school’s culture, both in sciences and humanities. I’d be interested to hear what your research turns up! How to instill good, effective, ethical habits rather undoing skills built on the inelegant use of elegant tools is what I find myself investigating most these days.

  2. Last year I created a Libguide on plagiarism, which several teachers have asked me to present to their classes. We are migrating to the new version, so this link will change (just remove .beta) in January:

  3. Hmmm… Sometimes I wonder if we’re not peeling the plagiarism discussion with kids far back enough. “Cite your sources or it’s plagiarism” or “It’s a violation of the honor code” doesn’t get to the root of why plagiarism is in the honor code to begin with. Parallel to this, is the “Plagiarism is stealing” meme. I suppose, though, that at the end of the day, from a kids’ point of view, plagiarism is mostly bad because it short circuits their learning process. We put plagiarism into our honor codes because by short circuiting the work and process that goes into creating and synthesizing something new, the person suffering the greatest harm is the one doing the plagiarizing. I’ve had this discussion with middle schoolers about what is “working together” on homework and what is “cheating.” My take has been, “When it short circuits the learning process for either person, than don’t do it. If you are legitimately, mutually learning and growing, then you’re probably getting the working together piece right.” Maybe we need to approach our discussions about plagiarism from a different angle. Totally just thinking “aloud” here…

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